Is Talking a Behavior or a Mental Process?

Psychology is confused about its subject matter.

Posted Nov 15, 2018

Let's talk about talking and the science of psychology. To be clear about what I mean, consider related concepts like verbal behavior, conversations, cognitive therapy and self-talk, narrative therapy and meaning-making, reasoning and reason-giving, attributions, interpretations, explanations and on and on.

Let’s ask modern empirical psychology: What are these “things”? Virtually all modern textbooks define psychology as “the science of behavior and mental processes.” Behaviors, the textbooks tell us, are things that can be observed and measured by scientists. In contrast, mental processes are hidden, at least from the third-person, empiricist perspective that defines modern psychology.

It is worth remembering that this concept of behavior was introduced by John Watson. He did so to connect it to the physical world and get rid of the concept of consciousness. Over time, however, most found the idea of denying the existence of cognition or consciousness to be silly. So now empirical psychologists agree that the field measures behavior and infers mental processes, usually referred to as cognition or consciousness. Usually, these are considered “latent constructs” that are functionally responsible for the empirically observed behavior.

Let's talk about this. Few things are more natural for us humans than talking. Let’s break down the concept of talking down from the vantage point of modern empirical psychology. According to this formulation, when I talk to you, my words go from being a mental process in my head and become a (physical?) behavior as they leave my body and presumably enter the external world. Those physical behaviors are then translated back into mental processes as they enter your brain and you understand them. The sound in between us can be observed and measured by the empirical psychologist, but our mental processes are inferred.

But what if I talk to myself? If I talk to myself out loud, then, according to modern empirical psychology, that goes from being a mental process to a physical behavior in the outside world that can be observed and then back into a mental process as I interpret it. At least I guess, but I confess to not being sure. But what if I talk to myself privately and silently? Then, that would be a mental process, which, presumably is not a behavior? Again, I just don't know.

Keep in mind that, according to modern empirical psychology, mental processes are, presumably, a very different kind of thing than physical behaviors. The latter are data of science. The former are latent constructs made up of the "mental" (which might be cognition, consciousness or something else and presumably play an important causal role in producing overt behavior). 

What of writing? Is that a behavior or mental process? And reading? The scientist can only watch you stare at a page. If you are not moving, you are not behaving according to modern psychology's definition of its subject matter. Perhaps you would be moving your eyes, so you would be behaving in that sense. The scientist would have to ask you and see if you understood what you saw by the sound waves produced by your behaving mouth. Or, if you typed your answers, the products of the behaviors of your fingers on a keyboard.  

Let's talk about what this means. If you understand what I am talking about in this blog, you will see that modern empirical psychology has a major problem. It does not understand how to conceptualize its subject matter.

Note that the correct way to think about talking is to see that it is a special kind of mental behavior.

For more on the "problem of psychology" see:

Getting Clear about the Problem of Psychology

This Is What Is Wrong with the Core of Psychology

The “Is Psychology a Science?” Debate 

Why the Clinical Scientist Model Fails

For ways to solve the problem and operate from a conceptual system that makes sense of talking behavior and other things, see:

The Human Mind: An Informational Interface Approach

A Periodic Table of Behavior for Psychology

Understanding Behavior via the ToK System

Skinner’s Fundamental Insight and Fundamental Error

A New Unified Theory of Psychology